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Paired with Pint-Size Sous Chefs, Contestants Must Find Common Threads on "Top Chef"

Kids. You can't cook with them, you can't cook without them. Or something to that effect, anyway.

This week on Top Chef ("Common Threads"), the chefs encountered challenges that were a little closer to home, with both the Quickfire and the Elimination geared towards fast, simple, and nutritious food that even a child could prepare... and to prove that point, paired each of the chefs with a culinary-inspired kid from the Common Threads program.

Before we get into that, I just want to say that I am suddenly very, very worried about Stephanie, who seems to be making some grievous errors at this point in the competition. While others have continued to impress and dazzle (Richard, Dale), Stephanie seems to be slipping downwards and I am not sure why. I do think she is one of the strongest chefs still in the mix and I don't know if it's nerves or lack of sleep that are causing her to lose focus, but I am getting concerned for her continued participation and the fact that she twice ended up in the bottom in last night's episode (after nearly getting cut last week) doesn't help matters...

Quickfire. The chefs were given 15 minutes (whah?) to prepare a meal, aided by Uncle Ben's microwavable whole grain rice products, which cook to plump perfection in only 90 seconds. (And if you cook with whole grains at home, you know that it usually takes about 40 minutes to do that.) I was curious to see how the chefs would deal with the time crunch; 15 minutes is not a lot of time, especially to prepare an entire dish for some very critical judges.

I assumed many would just create fried rice (ahem, Nikki) out of simplicity, but I have to say that I was surprised by a few of the dishes. Antonia's rice salad with skirt steak, argula, and cherry tomatoes seemed like a bit of a gambit (really, salad mixed with rice?) but it was a beautiful combination of hot and cold, textures, and flavors. After getting slammed down last week when she landed in the bottom two teams, Antonia has really stepped up this week and remained true to her culinary ethos. Dale may have created fried rice like I predicted many would, but he elevated it into a complete meal: fried rice with scallop paste and pineapple, topped with grilled scallop and Chinese long beans; it was a very self-assured dish that bursted with flavor and contained protein to boot. Same holds for Richard, whose dish of seared tuna steak and tomatoes with truffle oil and yuzu vinaigrette was a study in contrasts and flavor complexity. Well done, guys.

As for the rest, they were all pretty sub-par, from Nikki's vegetable studded fried rice (no points for originality there) to Lisa's bland shrimp with Sante Fe rice, corn, beans, tequilla-spiked peppers and avocado cream dish. Ditto for Mark's dry miso-glazed turkey fillet on a rice salad with sugar snap peas, grapes, and tomatoes. Spike's stuffed tomatoes were more a side dish than a main course. Stephanie tried to be quirky by creating a brown rice pancake with scallops, greens, and a vinaigrette, but the pancake was far too heavy for the dish.

I'm happy that the win went to Antonia, if it couldn't have gone to Richard.

(Side note: was it just me or was anyone else really just annoyed by guest judge Art Smith?)

Elimination Challenge. This was possibly one of the trickier challenges to date as the chefs were given a budget of only $10 to create a meal for a family of four that was healthy, nutritious, and tasty... and simple enough for a child to cook. It's hard to create a meal for a single person for $10 when you're shopping at market prices, rather than sourcing ingredients from suppliers directly. So what did the chefs come up with? Let's discuss.

Dale. I was a little concerned by the acidity of his dish, turkey bratwursts with dijon, Granny Smith apples, potatoes, and sweet and sour braised cabbage. The sweet/sour combo of the cabbage definitely seemed like it was going to pack a wallop, though the dish itself was beautifully presented and filled with vitamins.

Andrew. I thought his dish was absolutely beautiful and managed to incorporate fruit into the mix as well: a chicken paillard with basil and Parmesan paired with a fennel, orange, and apple salad with an apple-chicken jus. Simple, healthy, and fun to prepare.

Lisa. Sigh, what can I say about this underseasoned, tasteless dish? Not much, unfortunately. I was hardly surprised that Lisa found herself in the bottom three this week; her Quinoa-crushed chicken with black beans and edamame--both of which were undercooked and flavorless--was bland, boring, and played it far too safe. But to argue that the reason she was there was the judges' dislike of canned beans? Inane. It's not that the beans and edamame (which, yes, as she argued, canned foods are a staple in many households) were canned but that they weren't at all seasoned. At this point in the competition, are you really still not checking for seasoning?

Nikki. This was probably the best thing that Nikki has cooked to date: a roasted chicken with apple and mixed vegetables, accompanied by a cucumber and tomato salad. It was simple, easy, and one-pan cooking, always a plus for a busy family. I was a little annoyed by her repeating her story once again about fending for herself while growing up with a single mother; it would have been okay had she saved that for the presentation but it just felt slightly manipulative here.

Antonia. Once again, she dazzled this week's episode with a smart, easy, and protein-packed dish of stir-fried whole wheat noodles with bok choy, chicken, edamame, and cilantro. Totally kid friendly and yet heart-healthy thanks to the addition of whole wheat pasta. Antonia is a single mom herself so it would have not been in her best interests not to win this challenge but there was no fear of that as judges and kids alike loved this dish.

Richard. Kudos to Richard for including beets in his dish, typically an ingredient that many kids don't seem to like (though it's always surprised me as they're just so sweet). His dish was a beautifully composed plate: roast chicken with beets, avocado, apple, and cilantro. I too probably would have removed the skin to keep the dish a little healthier, but otherwise, I thought it was a kid-appropriate dish that looked like it went way beyond the $10 budget.

Spike. Again with the soup? Spike made a roasted carrot soup AND a pasta Puttanesca, loaded with olives, capers, and carrots. While the kids seemed to love it, it seemed a little too easy for me; I'd rather have seen him try to challenge himself a little by making something a little more upscale and elegant, at least in the presentation. Still, he gets points for making a full meal, from start to finish, even if the baked apples were only, er, semi-baked.

Stephanie. Oh, Steph. I really don't know what you were thinking with the combination of peanut butter and tomato in this dish, a combination which frankly makes me a little queasy. Her dish was, sadly, just a mess: the braised chicken and veggie couscous with chive yogurt sounded good conceptually, but the above combo was just odd and the couscous--possibly the easiest thing to cook on the planet--was overcooked. If you have any hopes of staying in this competition much longer, Stephanie, you're going to have to step it up.

Mark. I didn't have a problem with Mark making a vegetable curry; I actually thought it was a good idea that would allow him to stretch his $10 and challenge the kids with a sweet/spicy dish that might be outside their normal repertoire. However, Mark's dish, roasted vegetables in a red curry with cucumber salad and garlic naan, only really contained sweet potatoes and no other veg, a major misstep. Personally, I probably would have done a green curry (milder than red), loaded it up with all manner of vegetables and then included some lean protein like chicken or turkey into the mix. Instead, he created a confused dish that failed to meet the brief on several fronts and was completely disjointed: I still don't know what the relationship between the cucumber salad and the rest of the dish was meant to be.

While I love Mark's spritely personality, he's ended up in the bottom far too many time throughout this competition and I knew he'd be the one to pack his knives and go, especially after the recent accusations of less-than-ideal hygiene conditions in the kitchen. I'd probably have preferred that Lisa went home right now as she's just driving me up the wall or Nikki as she just keeps failing to impress me with everything she's doing.

Who are your favorite competitors left in this competition? And who are you dying to see get the boot? Discuss.

Next week on Top Chef ("Wedding Wars"), a quickfire challenge puts the chefs' knife skills to the ultimate test and then the chefs split into teams to cater a wedding and nearly fall off their feet when they must cook for fourteen hours straight. This elimination challenge looks like it might just be the one to fray several chefs' nerves and possibly lead to a complete and utter mental breakdown. I can't wait!

What's On Tonight

8 pm: Survivor: Micronesia--Fans vs. Favorites (CBS); My Name is Earl/Scrubs (NBC); Smallville (CW); Ugly Betty (ABC); Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? (FOX)

9 pm: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS); The Office/30 Rock (NBC); Supernatural (CW); Grey's Anatomy (ABC); Don't Forget the Lyrics (FOX)

10 pm: Without a Trace (CBS); ER (NBC); Lost (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Ugly Betty.

On tonight's episode ("Burning Questions"), Renee becomes delusional, thinking that Betty is in love with Daniel; Hilda must contend with her latest client, former nemesis Gina Gambarro, who returns to Queens to taunt Hilda with her fabulous new husband.

9 pm: The Office.

Yes, it's been really sub-par this season, but I'll keep watching just in case it suddenly improves. On tonight's episode ("Did I Stutter?"), Stanley barks at Michael during a meeting, causing Michael to try to change Stanley's attitude; meanwhile, Dwight tries to buy Andy's car and Pam spends the night at Jim's but discovers an unexpected inconvenience.

9:30 pm: 30 Rock.

On tonight's brand-new episode ("Sandwich Day"), it's the return of Liz's ex-boyfriend Floyd (Jason Sudeikis) who needs somewhere to stay overnight after his flight out of New York is canceled; Jack finds himself demoted to the 12th floor after Devon takes over GE, causing him to question his future with the company.

10 pm: Lost.

The highlight of my television-viewing week is here. On tonight's episode ("Something Nice Back Home"), Kate and Juliet must work together to save Jack when his health is compromised; Sawyer, Claire, Miles, and Aaron head back to the beach but discover they are not out of the woods when they encounter Keamy along the way.


Anonymous said…
I am SO ready for Lisa to go. I was holding my breath last night before Padma sent Mark to pack his knives - I was very concerned it would be Steph.

As for chef whats-his-name, he reminds me of someone and it's driving me nuts. Someone who was on a tv show, and I feel like it was a half-hour.

My favorites left are Steph, Richard and Antonia.
Anonymous said…
"As for chef whats-his-name, he reminds me of someone and it's driving me nuts. Someone who was on a tv show...."

I know what you mean ... I felt the same way! I finally decided he reminded me of Taylor Doose from Gilmore Girls.

I like Stephanie, Richard, and Antonia, too. I kinda want to like Dale, but I just can't get there yet.
Anonymous said…
yes, Robin - that's it!!

I finally figured it out, and then Jace guided me back here to see that someone else thought the same thing! It's totally Taylor.

And I am so with you on Dale.
He is totally Taylor Doose! Even the way he was speaking. Good call, Robin!

I would have preferred it if Lisa went home over Mark, just based on personality. I think Mark's idea to do curry was smart and don't understand why he got so much flack for it. It is a family staple in many homes around the world. I just wish he would have executed it better.

Poor Stephanie. What was she thinking?! She better pull it together soon.

I was happy to see Antonia not only win the quick fire but the elimination challenge as well. I would love to see her, Richard and either Dale or Stephanie in the final three.
Anonymous said…
Lisa ... attitude, much?

I was ready for her to leave long ago, but especially when she thought she was too good for Polish sausage and couldn't even follow the rules of the improv challenge.

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